race, pluralism and the meaning of
, no 33 (spring 1998)
It's good to be different' might be the motto of our times. The celebration of difference,
respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics - these are regarded the hallmarks of a
progressive, antiracist outlook. At least in part, the antiracist embrace of difference is
fuelled by a hostility to universalism. For most antiracists today, the Enlightenment
project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the natural and social world,
and of deriving certain universal principles from fragmented experience, is not only a
fantasy, but a racist fantasy. It is a fantasy because the world is too complex and too
heterogeneous to be subsumed under a single totalising theory. It is racist because
universalism has become a means of imposing Euro-American ideas of rationality and
objectivity on other peoples and of denying the possibility of non-Western viewpoints.
For many antiracists, the intellectual arrogance of universalism has led to the attempt to
eliminate not just non-Western thought, but non-Aryan peoples too. The road that began
with Enlightenment universalism ended in the Nazi death camps.
I want in this paper to show this to be a naive and dangerous view. Far from establishing
a critique of racial thinking, the politics of difference appropriates many of its themes and
reproduces the very assumptions upon which racism has historically been based. Most
critically, the embrace of difference has undermined the capacity to defend equality. The
very title of the final debate at the Frontlines/ Backyards conference - 'Equalities and the
politics of difference' - expresses the problem. Equality cannot have any meaning in the
plural. Equality cannot be relative, with different meanings for different social, cultural or
sexual groups. If so it ceases to be equality at all, or rather becomes equality in the way
racists used to define it - 'equal but different' - in defending segregation or apartheid.
Equality requires a common yardstick, or measure of judgement, not a plurality of
Richard Rorty has observed that the embrace of diversity and the desire for equality are
not easily compatible. For Rorty, those whom he calls 'Enlightenment liberals' face a
seemingly irresolvable dilemma in their pursuit of both equality and diversity:
Their liberalism forces them to call any doubts about human equality a result of irrational
bias. Yet their connoisseurship [of diversity] forces them to realise that most of the
globe's inhabitants do not believe in equality, that such a belief is a Western eccentricity.
Since they think it would be shockingly ethnocentric to say 'So what? We Western
liberals do believe in it, and so much the better for us', they are stuck.
Rorty himself, a self-avowed 'postmodern bourgeois liberal', solves the problem by